For a team that ranked second in the National League in runs scored and came three wins away from making a return trip to the World Series, the Cubs had more than a couple of regulars who had down seasons.
Jason Heyward has yet to produce offensively since coming to the North Side. Kyle Schwarber got sent down in the middle of the season despite finishing with 30 home runs. Ben Zobrist was bothered by injuries and had the worst statistical season of his career.
Addison Russell was in that group, too. He dealt with injuries to his foot and shoulder as well as off-the-field issues that triggered a Major League Baseball investigation. Russell is ready to forget all about 2017. But the question still remains: Even without any of those other circumstances, what should people expect from Russell?
Just 24 years old, it seems like he's been a Cub forever. Russell drove in six of the Cubs' nine runs in Game 6 of the 2016 World Series, unleashing a rare display of emotion after he blasted a third-inning grand slam that sent the Cubs to Game 7 the next night in Cleveland.
But Russell has yet to turn in a batting average higher than .242. In two of his three big league seasons, his on-base percentage has come in just barely over .300. He drove in a whopping 95 runs during the Cubs' 107-win regular season in 2016, finishing in the top 20 in National League MVP voting. But 108 players finished with a higher OPS than Russell's .738 that season.
None of this is to suggest that Russell has been bad for the Cubs or that he doesn't deserve any recognition — his defensive capabilities alone have been good enough to keep "El Mago" (Javy Baez) at second base. It's just to wonder: What's the next step in Russell's development? How much better can he be?
Asked those very questions in the early days of spring training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon focused on both aspects of Russell's game, defense and offense, when giving a scouting report of what's next for the young shortstop.
"He’s a young man. It’s all going to come together for him," Maddon said. "I really think this is kind of his year to really blossom. He’s done so much good work over the last couple years. Last year a little more difficult in the beginning, but I thought he got it together towards the end. His game became better. The big thing is his arm, making sure that his arm strength is good, keeping him on the field where he feels comfortable making those throws. I know there’s always this controversy about the middle infield, but I really like him when he’s well because he’s so athletic, he’s so gifted, and as a shortstop he’s so fundamentally sound.
"I think his hitting — I’ve talked about this from jump street — this guy’s really strong. Watch his batting practices. At Wrigley, he’s really loud. That power a couple years ago was not a fluke, you’re going to see that again.
"So I would say a more mature approach at the plate, where if the count gets in the pitcher’s favor he’s willing to utilize the whole field. Pick up on his walks, cut down on his strikeouts by doing that. Beyond that, a more consistent approach to his arm daily, I think that’s what’s really going to be the separator. When he’s able to do that, you’re going to see this outstanding defense every day."
Russell is in a different situation than some of the other hitters mentioned above. He's young, still developing into what he'll be in his prime. That doesn't mean, though, that he can't benefit from new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis, brought in to help young hitters like Russell and Schwarber along as much as he was to "fix" veterans like Heyward and Zobrist.
Davis worked with Russell before, when the latter was a highly rated prospect coming up in the Oakland Athletics' organization. Now the two are reunited with the Cubs, much to Davis' delight.
"I had Addy in Oakland," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month in Mesa. "And we traded Addy and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for (Jeff) Samardzija and (Jason) Hammel. And I was very disappointed to see him go because I thought, 'Here's our future.' But at the time, we were trying to win, we were in a position to win and go on to the playoffs, so you do understand the trade. But it was just disappointing to see Addy go.
"But I was really happy for him because I looked up and he's in the big leagues. And not only is he in the big leagues but he's performing well in the big leagues. I remember saying to him, 'We'll be together again.' Here's a kid who you just knew, you knew he was going to be a big league player."
There are specific things that the Cubs are looking to see — and expecting to see — from Russell as the still very young player enters his fourth major league season. And while fans and observers will be looking for boosts in those offensive statistics, Maddon thinks the sky's the limit for one of the Cubs' core players.
Russell's already been to an All-Star Game, but Maddon sees something bigger than that.
"Absolutely he can win a Gold Glove," Maddon said. "A lot of our guys can win a Gold Glove. Addy’s right there. A lot of times winning a Gold Glove depends upon how well you hit, so I think he’s got enough offense to be a Gold Glove winner. He doesn’t make mistakes physically, as he goes after a ball, how his feet work, he plays through the ball really well, he turns a double play well. It really comes down to arm strength on a consistent basis, I think that will permit that to happen."